Hanna and I were in Montreal this weekend, at the North American Conference on British Studies. Well, Hanna was at the conference and I went along as the spouse. I spent the hours Hanna was in session writing an epic piece of fan fiction I’m working on (yes, this is what I do on vacation) and the hours she was free we spent wandering around the city. I’d never been to Montreal, and do hope to return there at some point when we have more free time (and more hours of daylight!).
But what I actually want to write about today is less our visit to Montreal and more the fact that taking this international trip together so soon after the election, with marriage equality and gay rights all over the news, made me acutely aware of the fact that our marriage is still second-class when it comes to legal recognition. We’re married in the state of Massachusetts, and treated as such within its borders (for example, when I picked up the rental car at the Enterprise office they told me kindly I no longer needed to present Hanna’s license in order to add her as an authorized driver; spouses are automatically covered). But it’s actually just good luck that driving through Massachusetts, Vermont, and into Quebec, that we remained, for our entire trip, on soil where our marriage is valid.
While this wasn’t of immediate material concern to us, crossing the U.S. – Canadian border, the U.S. border patrol considers us two individual unrelated citizens, rather than a family unit.
When we drove up to Maine for our post-wedding brunch with Hanna’s parents in October, our marriage ceased to be recognized by the jurisdiction we were in for the duration of our stay; thanks to Maine voters this will not be the case when we go up for our annual Christmas visit. When we fly to Oregon to visit my brother and sister-in-law next year, we’ll be in a state where we’d only have the option of a civil union; the next time we visit my home state of Michigan, where there’s a Defense of Marriage Act in place, I’ll be in a geo-political location where people have actively rejected my status as a married person.
This actually matters to me way more than I thought it would, the way the legal status of my marriage is so permeable. Obviously, the promises that Hanna and I have made to one another do not cease at the state or national border. And as more and more queer folk marry same-sex partners, our relationships will gain cultural legibility even in places where DOMA laws are still on the books, or gay marriage isn’t technically legal. I imagine that when I introduce Hanna as my wife when we’re in California next fall for a friend’s wedding our status as a married couple will be taken as read.
But looking at this map, as a gay-married person, I suddenly realize that until the legal-political landscape for marriage rights change, Hanna and I are basically limited to living in eight states in our fifty-state union (or moving abroad).
While we have no plans to leave Massachusetts before the decade is out, it’s still a sobering realization, and one that I didn’t feel the full import of back before we’d tied the knot. It’s one thing to live in a state with a gay marriage ban or civil unions when you’re just considering getting married. You weigh your options, maybe decide to travel somewhere like Vermont or Iowa or (now) Washington and make it legal, throw a party, configure yourself and your wife as rebellious upstarts, the advance guard of the gay-married revolution.
(At least, I could totally see myself getting a kick out of that, had we met and decided to live in, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan.)
But now, as an already-married lesbian it feels way more hostile to walk into spaces where there are folks actively choosing not to recognize and honor my relationship choices and commitments. Instead of those people saying, “No, you can’t, we won’t let you,” it feels like they’re saying “You have, but we don’t care.“
And I think that feels worse because it feels like even when you do things by the book it doesn’t matter, you’ll get dismissed anyway. I know this isn’t true, rationally. That state-by-state recognition is a powerful symbolic and material gain, as is every single individual instance of person-to-person recognition (from our parents to the woman at Enterprise who rented me the car), as is the sea-change of public opinion which we appear to be witnessing. But in the moment, there’s a part of me that finds it really, really scary to acknowledge that regardless of all intimate personal commitments and acts, we are at the end of the day beholden to the government and to the opinions of our fellow citizens for equal recognition, and if they were to decide we weren’t married, they have the power to (legally) erase our formal entanglements and there’s nothing we could do about it.
Which is why I feel newfound gratitude toward all of the folks who have made this their issue du jour as organizers. It’s only one small corner of the queer rights universe, but just because it’s gone “mainstream” doesn’t mean it’s ceased to matter.